OyChicago blog

An update on the Chicago Jewish community’s contribution to Haiti relief efforts

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An update on the Chicago Jewish photo 1

Less than two weeks after the devastating Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti, the Jewish Federation’s Haitian Earthquake Relief Fund has reached more than $600,000, with donations from more than 3,300 contributors. A large portion of these funds have been funneled the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), which has supported an Israeli field hospital and food and water distribution to survivors, and is planning future rebuilding efforts, and IsraAID, a coalition of Israeli and Jewish organizations that coordinates emergency response and relieve efforts worldwide.

Along with other Israeli relief workers, an IsraAID delegation was among the first rescue teams on the ground. Volunteer doctors and nurses were working with teams from other countries and have treated more than 1,300 patients, some of whom required life-saving operations in an Israeli field hospital.

An update on the Chicago Jewish photo 2

Funds raised through the Federation’s Haitian relief effort also have been sent to the Israeli volunteer rescue organization ZAKA, which freed at least a dozen people from beneath rubble, and the American Jewish World Service, which is working with its on-the-ground partners to provide relief in affected areas outside Port-au-Prince.

Federation is continuing its efforts to provide relief in the disaster area. Contributions to the Jewish Federation Haitian Earthquake Relief Fund can be made at www.juf.org/relief_fund or by calling the hotline: 312.444.2869. 100% of collected donations go directly to support non-sectarian needs on the ground; the Jewish Federation is absorbing all administrative costs.

An update on the Chicago Jewish photo 3


Sleep is for the weak? Count me in!

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Sleep is for the weak photo

I take all my cues from my guy Gus

For some reason I am convinced that the whole world needs constant updates on my sleep schedule. No matter what time you run into me, I am likely to report on how much I did or didn’t sleep the night before. Sleep or lack thereof can make me groggy, cheerful, snappy or just plain off-the-wall. Six hours is about my floor for minimum functionality: anything less and you’re really gambling with which Esther shows up in the morning.

In college, of course, this used to be okay. (At my school, “Sleep is for the weak” is an unofficial motto.) You could rehearse a play until 10 pm, host a get-together with friends until 2 am and be mostly functional for an opening shift at the coffee shop (or fake lucidity for a 9 am class) before stealing a nap during the two-hour break before your next rehearsal. Somehow it would add up to eight hours, more or less. But—and part of me still can’t believe I’m saying this—I’m 25 now and holding down a real job, with a real work week. The piggy bank method of catching up on your sleep debt isn’t cutting it anymore.

I’m not the only one obsessed with sleep: the Huffington Post has been running a sleep challenge, using the new year as an opportunity to raise awareness about the benefits of better sleep, but also to share stories about the outcomes, hilarious or otherwise, of not stocking up on Zs. It’s also less intimidating than the reams of stories you see about the dire effects of sustained sleep loss: heart trouble, fatigue, high blood pressure, premature aging, reduced immunity, you name it. Get the full story from HuffPo here.

The arguments for sleep are easy –waking up fully rested speaks for itself. Making it happen, on the other hand, sometimes seems like a monumental task, especially during the week. I hear that. I’m taking improv comedy classes, which means I’m supposed to go see shows at night. Sometimes that means I get home for the first time after midnight, and my alarm goes off at 6:46. (Sleep deprivation does not, by the way, make you funnier.)

I like my sleep, though. I’m very fond of it. This year I’m actively trying to minimize the amount of sleep I lose. The system isn’t perfect, but so far it’s been a good start.

1. Separate your space. Last year I moved from a studio apartment to a one-bedroom, which was a huge deal for me. Sleeping in the same room in which you eat, entertain friends and keep your computer makes it easy to justify checking your email or cleaning up when it’s right there. Being able to put a wall or a door between myself and all that makes me focus on slowing down. If you don’t have that option, no worries: just commit yourself to getting in bed and staying there.

2. Get offline! I have a very unhealthy relationship with the Internet. My laptop generally wakes up when I do. At the end of the day, though, I try to walk away from it about an hour and a half before I turn out the lights. I know I’d be using that time to endlessly refresh sites that never update at that hour, and reading books is much less aggravating. (My own mantra is that the Internet will, in fact, still be there in the morning. The same thing applies to TV.)

3. Caffeine ends in the afternoon. Chicago is cold in the winter. Behind the clouds, the sky is also blue. I love a hot chocolate when I get out of work. But stimulants like sugar or caffeine keep me buzzing for hours afterward. If you want to get a good night’s rest, the general recommendation is to have your last coffee around 2 pm. Herbal teas are just as hot and delicious, though!

4. Move around. Some weekends I am a lump. I hang out and putter around and at the end of the day, even though I’m tired, it takes forever to actually seal the deal and fall asleep. Physical activity, even just walking through a neighborhood, makes a big difference in your sleep schedule.

5. Have a routine. Do the same thing every night. At the same time is ideal, but not always practical. Give yourself all the right signals that it’s time for the day to be over. If my lights are out and I still can’t turn my brain off, I like to count backward from a hundred.

During sleep, your body calls time-out to process what’s happened to it, physically, emotionally and mentally. How much you need varies from person to person, but if lifestyle and not other issues is preventing you from getting enough, small changes can help recalibrate your time and make room for more rest. (As always, if you’re concerned about your sleep cycles, see a doctor.)

By the way, if you’re curious: six hours last night (I was caught up in a good book), but otherwise not too shabby.


My terrible, horrible, no good, very bad morning

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Have you ever woken up and just known that it was going to be a rough day?  I have, and today was it.  There are some days when the alarm goes off, and even after hitting snooze no fewer than four times, you just can’t seem to wake up, and even a shock of cold water in the shower doesn’t snap you out of it.

So this morning, I finally stumble into something semi-presentable, gathered up my cell phone, a can of soup for lunch and a scarf to shield myself from the renewed vigor of the Chicago winter.  Halfway out the door, I remembered to grab the new book that I just checked out from the library last night, because a Metra ride without a book is like…well it’s long and quiet and boring.

So I trudge through the cold, already running ten minutes late, and as I hit the Metra stairs at a near run, I realized that my Metra monthly pass was still sitting on my dining room table inside last week’s train book.  UGH.

Now, I’m not a girl who attends temple more than a few times a year, ponders God on a regular basis or sees the divine in everyday actions, but this morning, I literally stood on Church Street in Evanston, with the Metra to my right and the El tracks to my left thinking, “God!  Why didn’t you remind me to grab my goddamn pass!”  No wonder he didn’t have my back.

So with my empty wallet in tow and the Metra’s cash-only policy in the back of my mind, I headed to the El as the train passed me by overhead.  UGH again.

Now, as you may recall, I was a little hesitant about moving to the ‘burbs, but now that I’ve grown accustomed to my clean, quiet and efficient commute on the Metra, getting on the El for a longer, smellier, already-behind-schedule commute is not my idea of fun.

Finally I got to the office, with my ten minute delay extended to 20, and the to-do-list on my desk seemed to be screaming, “Help!  So much to do, and now even less time!”  So now I’m at my desk, writing my Oy! article, pondering the rough morning effect:

When you wake up on the wrong side of the bed, does the day have to end that way?  And is it easier to wake up on the wrong side of the bed knowing that you’ll leave your apartment to enter 70 degrees and sunshine?

I may be crabby, poorly-rested, slightly disheveled looking and buried under my to-do-list, but I don’t have to let a poor start to the day ruin the rest of it.  And just because the high today doesn’t even make it past the mid-twenties, that doesn’t mean I have to let the winter blues make me blue.

Let’s be honest: the mind over matter technique doesn’t always work.  This afternoon, as I struggle to keep my eyes open after a night of fitful sleep while I focus on the tasks ahead of me, I probably won’t head home at five reflecting upon how awesome my day was after I shook it off.  But a girl can try, right?



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I remember hearing this term and thinking to myself, what exactly could be fun about unemployment?  Reading through article and studies online of how the nation’s unemployment rate has affected the mental, physical, and emotional health of individuals, and experiencing it firsthand, can make it difficult to move beyond the negatives and view the positives of the situation.

However, fun and work are not usually words that go hand-in-hand.  In fact, fun is usually what happens after work or on weekends when you no longer have any work to do and can relax and enjoy yourself with a night out or a low-key night in.  Therefore, the term funemployment should make sense, for if fun comes after work, then fun should also come with no work, right?  But what exactly is funemployment?

Urban Dictionary Definition #1: “A happy time in one’s life when one is not employed and is not wanting to be employed.”

First, let’s take a look at that sentence.  Perhaps the reason one is not employed is because one does not know how to write grammatically.  Aside from the grammatical issues, why would you not want to be employed?

Well, an early retirement seems like a good example.  Of course you have to work very hard, often coupled with long hours, in order to retire at an early age.  Students are also generally happy focusing on their studies and putting off their entrance into the workforce.

Urban Dictionary Definition #2: “The condition of a person who takes advantage of being out of a job to have the time of their life.”

Time of your life, huh?  I guess I missed that memo.  Well I can’t exactly say that I have been having the time of my life, but I will admit that unemployment has given me time to do things I would not have been able to do with a full-time job.  Here are a few examples:

• Reading books for pleasure.  I have read a record number of fiction novels since the summer and I have been able to really enjoy them.

• Drinking coffee and other forms of yummy caffeinated beverages because I like them and not because I need them.

• Catching up on great TV shows I missed while in college.  Not to mention watching the new additions this year.  I think everyone knows what I’m talking about…Glee!

• Learning new hobbies, such as teaching myself how to play the guitar.

• Seeing movies when they come out in theatres instead of when they come out on TV.

Funemployment photo

No longer Alvin and the Chipmunks, now it’s Deborah and the Chipmunks

• Sleeping in and enjoying it instead of waking up in a panic, throwing on some clothes and heading out to drive, or more likely sit, through rush hour traffic.

• Volunteering without feeling like I am stretching myself too thin.  My current volunteer project is tax preparation for the Center for Economic Progress.

Since the other definitions don’t apply, I won’t list them here, but clearly unemployment does not have to be all doom and gloom.

There was a time in my life when everything was about work and getting ahead.  Socializing took a backseat to long days and nights filled with projects and deadlines.  I didn’t really have a good balance between doing work and having fun.  The theory behind funemployment seems to be getting a semblance of your life back.  Realizing there is more to life than work.

As Amanda Rounsaville questions in an L.A. Times article about funemployment, “Do we work to live or do we live to work?”

It’s kind of like that fickle feeling students have during break.  You come home so happy that the semester is over and you can relax without worrying about work and deadlines.  After a couple of weeks, though, you go out of your mind from the boredom of having nothing to do.  So it looks like I not only work to live, but live to work as well.

Although I enjoy the freedom of funemployment, I miss the hectic, over-scheduled, challenging days of employment.  I suppose we always want what we don’t have.


No Ill Wishes

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No Ill Wishes photo

Exactly one year ago, I had just been released from the hospital and it was one of the most strange and humbling experiences I have ever had. I was admitted to a Catholic hospital in the city, and remained there for five days after finding that my appendix had ruptured. I would eventually return six weeks later to have my appendix removed, since it was too dangerous to remove it at that time. In 2004, I had worked and trained as a hospital chaplain for 11 weeks in New York, and back then, I thought that I had really grown accustomed to what the hospital was all about. Let me tell you, I was wrong. It was not until this experience that I learned how being in a hospital when you are really sick makes you feel a whole range of emotions: fear, hope, exhaustion, impatience, and above all, complete dependence on your loved ones keeping an eye on you and the medical staff taking care of you.

It was a little odd being a Jew in a Catholic hospital, but it was an emergency, and this is where my doctor sent me. Arriving at my room being pushed in a wheelchair, as I relax in the not-so-relaxing bed, I am groggy and dehydrated and look up to see a . . . cross.

So, here I am, an incredibly ill, bed-ridden appendicitis patient, and I immediately yell to my family, "I want that taken down!" Well, my family did not think it was appropriate for me to be saying this—they told me to just ignore it, and that every prayer counted.

Personally, I have visited so many people in hospitals, both my own congregants, and many people of other faiths, as many chaplains are trained in Interfaith chaplaincy. Our work often involves creating an Interfaith prayer—a prayer that was neutral of any religion or tradition, but was still a comforting response for the patient.

Each day during my hospital stay began with a chaplain reading a comforting prayer of this nature over the intercom. This was the official wakeup call, as compared to the multiple times I was woken by nurses and other staff coming in and out of my room throughout the night. Isn't rest the best medicine? Since my rabbi was out of town, I picked up a brochure that was placed in my room and found that I could request for the hospital’s rabbi to visit me by asking the nurse. She responded, "Oh, we only have priests available today." Strike two.

Yet, I did get a few of my wishes that week. First, I got to watch the entire presidential inauguration—TWICE! (It was great the first time!) Having worked in a hospital and fielded requests for chaplains, I had a feeling that if I left a message with the Pastoral Care department, it would end up in the right hands. Nearly a day later, the hospital rabbi visited me. He was an older fellow who seemed to greatly enjoy playing Jewish Geography with my mother. I will give him due credit that he delivered me a really nice little basket of Shabbat goodies on that Friday just before I was released. I was, however, a little stunned and turned off when he forced his personal theology upon me telling me that he preferred to pray only on behalf of the doctors and staff rather than for the patient directly. I wanted my Mi Shebeirach too.

I returned to work a week and a half later, still recuperating from that experience. I shared my multitude of experiences and stories with everyone, including my rabbi, now back in town. I told him about the cross, and to my satisfaction, he agreed and said, "Well, I would have done the same too." If you ever find yourself in a similar situation, the hospital rabbi told me that they do have covers to place over the crosses—no one should feel out of place or uncomfortable in a hospital room.

As a cantor, one of the most amazing things has happened from my experiences in the hospital. It has forever changed the way I visit my congregants when they are ill. When I look in the bed, I see myself—weak and looking for a hand to hold, longing for a conversation, and ultimately waiting to be blessed with a prayer.


Secrets of the ‘least clingy couple’

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Among our friends, my husband and I are known as “the least clingy couple in the history of the universe.” That’s because we realized early that we have to let each other have interests outside the other person.

We also aren’t the most romantic sort: we celebrated our first wedding anniversary by hanging out with our two best friends, our second by hosting a slew of family and friends for a touristy weekend in Chicago, and our third by hiking in Red Rocks Park near Denver, where my sister lives. The children of Soviet-bred parents, both of us are entirely too practical to be romantic.

That’s why it makes sense for us to have personal friends and “couple” friends. My husband can easily take off for a skiing trip with his friends – he’s into downhill, while I’m a cross-country person. And I’ll go dancing with my friends, while he’s at home tinkering with the latest digital gadget. We trust each other enough to give the other person space to live the life he or she wants – even if the other person doesn’t share in the enthusiasm for a certain hobby.

Meanwhile, we also make a point to go out together and do things we enjoy: regular trips to the Art Institute to contemplate the Impressionists, running along the lake, cooking together, camping, and myriad little things that make up our life.

When we realized we wanted to spend our lives together – and knowing our rational streaks – we set out to build our partnership on three specific pillars: the building of personal traditions, communication, and the knowledge that we can depend on each other in the toughest situations.

Together, we began celebrating Shabbat every Friday night, inviting friends to join us at least once a month. While we don’t consider ourselves religious Jews, we enjoy exploring Jewish tradition and figuring out ways we can celebrate it in our own way. Next week, for example, we are hosting a Tu B’Shevat seder, for which we wrote a haggadah. We compiled it from various sources and included readings and songs that spoke to our personal commitment to the environment.

Secrets of the ‘least clingy couple’ photo 2

Because we dated long-distance for four years – we studied at different universities about 150 miles apart – we know that communication is key. That’s the advice given to many newlyweds, but we found that out long before we made plans for a chuppah. Left-over from those four years are regular catch-up sessions. Since getting married, we’ve also used this time to review our finances together, which is especially important in a tough economy like now.

Of course, we aren’t perfect. Like any other two people stuck together in 854 square feet, we butt heads occasionally. But the beauty of having a life partner is also having a conversation partner, someone who will listen even if he or she disagrees.


Adventures in Trevor sitting

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If having a baby is anything like owning a dog, don’t sign me up any time soon.  I love seeing adorable babies, especially on Oy!— Oy!sters have some cute babies!  And as the proud aunt of five nieces and nephews, I love playing with kids.  But, I also really, really like my beauty rest.

Which brings me to my present sleep-deprived situation.  My parents migrate south every winter, escaping to Florida and California.  My dad likes Florida and my mom likes California, so they go to both.  Normally, they bring along their beloved, adorable fourth child, Trevor.  If you’ve been following my posts then you’d know that Trevor is actually a super cute, affectionate, but not so smart Yorkshire terrier.

Adventures in Trevor sitting photo 1

Don’t let his adorableness fool you

This year, Trevor was only invited on the California leg of the trip, because Jason and I, and our new condo, are available to dog sit…for six weeks.  SIX WEEKS!  Oy!  It really seemed like a fun idea back in September when it was still warm out.  (Summer always clouds my better judgment and makes me forget that I spend nine months of the year living in frozen tundra.)

So, Trevor arrived New Year’s weekend, which is also Jason’s birthday weekend— as you can imagine there was a lot of celebrating and staying up very late.  Big mistake!  In one weekend we managed to somehow turn my adorable little puppy into some kind of nocturnal monster.

Adventures in Trevor sitting photo 2

Are butterflies nocturnal?

He sleeps during the day while we are at work and there’s no one to stop him (aside from the dog walker— see we’re really good pet sitters) and REFUSES to sleep at night, which would still be ok if he let us sleep.  But Trevor won’t let that happen— not after being deprived of attention all day.

The last few weeks have been going something like this:

The middle of the night…

Trevor:  “Bark! Bark! Bark!” followed by running around the bed and scratching at our back door.
Jason:  “What is he doing, it’s midnight?”
Me:  “I think he needs to go out…again.”

3 hours later…

Trevor:  “Bark! Bark! Bark!” followed by running around the bed.
Jason:  “Now, what?!”
Me:  “Trevor what is your deal?
Trevor responds by bringing me over his favorite toy so we can play fetch.
Me:  “Trevor, it’s the middle of the night!  That’s it, you want to play?  You can play in the kitchen.”

Another hour or so goes by…

Scratching and crying at the bedroom door.
Me:  “I’m letting him back in.”
Jason:  “He’s a dog not a child.  Leave him outside.”
Me:  “But he won’t stop until I let him in.  He’s probably just lonely.


Trevor starts scratching again at the back door.
Me:  “At least babies you don’t have to walk outside in the middle of the night!  Let’s go Trevor!”

Adventures in Trevor sitting photo 3

Jason, exhausted from Trevor’s antics

Now I know what you’re thinking— this dog has her wrapped around his little paw and I just need to stand tough with him.  But that means ignoring his incessant barking throughout the night and like I said before, I will do anything to protect my beauty rest…  Ok, so I also start to feel bad for him.  I’m like Cameron from Modern Family fighting Mitchell and his baby “ferberizing” system.  I, too, am “like a mother bear.  When I hear my cub crying, I have to run to her.”

The first week I truly thought there was something wrong with him and was ready to take him to the vet— now I realize he’s probably just upset my mom is gone and is acting out like a spoiled child.  But I still feel bad for him.

It doesn’t help matters that my parent’s treat Trevor like a spoiled child and the city just bores him.  A typical day in the suburbs for Trevor consists of running around the backyard— guarding the house from the neighbor’s dogs, birds, SKUNKS, squirrels, the occasional chipmunk and other small creatures he feels big against.  In the city, he’s lucky if he gets in one good bark a day at another dog or a rat, if he’s really lucky.

A Thanksgiving story photo 2


Maybe if he suffers through another one of these, he will start behaving better? 


I love Trevor and once he wags his cute little tail and smiles up at you— not even the Grinch could stay angry with him.  Plus, it’s so nice to come home to a happy dog after a long day at work.  But, we can’t keep living like this!  I’m so tired it hurts!  Dog lovers and dog owners— please tell me what do you do?  Any advice, suggestions, phone numbers for local “dog whisperers” or doggie sleeping drug recommendations would be much appreciated…


My take on today's greatest Jewish athletes

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My take on today's greatest Jewish athletes photo

Recently, Spike.com ran an article about the top 10 current professional Jewish athletes. I highly disagreed with their assessment. So, I moved around people and shuffled in a few of our own.

Spike.com's Choices.
10) Jordan Farmar - Backup Point Guard Los Angeles Lakers
9) Marty Turco - Goalie Dallas Stars
8) Sue Bird - Starting Point Guard Seattle Storm
7) Kane - WWE Wrestler
6) Jason Lezak - Olympic Swimmer
5) Ian Kinsler - Starting Second Baseman Texas Rangers
4) Igor Olshansky - Starting Defensive Lineman Dallas Cowboys
3) Kevin Youkilis - Starting First/Third Baseman Boston Red Sox
2) Mike Cammalleri - Starting Left Wing Montreal Canadians
1) Ryan Braun - Starting Left Fielder Milwaukee Brewers

So I decided to give you my own list. I based my decision on how much these players have excelled in their respective sport. I included Yuri Foreman, Omri Casspi, Andy Ram, and Sacha Cohen. All of whom I thought were more deserving than Igor Olshansky, Jordan Farmar, Kane, and Marty Turco. Players who just missed my cut were Olshansky, Julian Edelman, Scott Feldman, Turco, Shahar Peer, and Farmar. Also, note that players with one Jewish parent count on both lists. Enjoy!

10) Yuri Foreman - World Boxing Association Super welterweight Champion
9) Sasha Cohen - Olympic Gold Medal Skater
8) Jason Lezak - Olympic Gold Medal Swimmer
7) Sue Bird - Starting Guard Seattle Storm
6) Andy Ram - 9th Ranked Doubles Player. 5th Ranked in Team Doubles.
5) Ian Kinsler - Starting Second Baseman Texas Rangers.
4) Omri Casspi - Starting Forward Sacramento Kings
3) Mike Cammalleri - Starting Left Wing Montreal Canadians
2) Ryan Braun - Starting Left Fielder Milwaukee Brewers
1) Kevin Youkilis - Starting First/Third Baseman Boston Red Sox

Let me know what you think.
And Let Us Say...Amen.

For more on top Jewish athletes check out www.thegreatrabbino.com.


Standing up

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Yesterday at work I had the privilege of attending a special program honoring the life and legacy of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on the day his birthday was observed across the country. Our keynote speaker was the Honorable Jesse White, the Illinois Secretary of State. Secretary White was an extremely personable man with countless personal stories of both triumph and discrimination. He also made an interesting point that has inspired me to write for the first time in a long while.

“Segregation was about sitting down:” whites sit in this part of the bus, blacks here. Whites sit at this bar, blacks at this one. This bathroom allows whites only, this one has a sign that says ‘colored.’”
By extension, equality and justice are about standing up.
In the program for the event there was an excerpt of one of Dr. King’s speeches, given at Southern Methodist University on March 17, 1966.
"I would say we have come a long, long way in our struggle to make justice a reality for all men but we have a long, long way to go before the problem is solved... Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless effort and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God; and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation and irrational emotionalism. We must have time and we must realize that the time is always right to do right."
Today, 44 years later, in this country we've got the Prop 8 trial. We've got healthcare reform. We've got job issues, tax issues, food issues, education issues, housing issues, many of which reek of injustice and disparity.

Now Haiti has been ravaged by an earthquake the magnitude of which has not been seen in two centuries. There is plenty to be emotional about. Though we can send our dollars and our prayers, we could not stop the horrific destruction of, basically, an entire country and innocent lives and families by natural disaster.

But there are issues where we are not so helpless, and there is no time for us to rest. There is no time for us to be irrationally emotional. There is no time for us to allow the status quo to remain. The time is now, the time is always, to be rationally emotional, to stand up. Separate is never equal. Justice is not partial to one race or class or gender or country or religion or sexual orientation or hair color or age.
Alexandre Dumas wrote, "all human wisdom is summed up in two words; wait and hope."

I disagree. It is wise to be just. It is wise to be fair. It is wise to stand up for what you believe in when you see a wrong in the world.
Dumas may not have gotten everything right. But his Three Musketeers did: It's time for us to all stand up and proclaim that we will wait no longer, that the time is now to declare, "all [standard rights] for one, and one [standard rule] for all."
Write to your legislators in favor of those bills you believe will make this country fair and just and prosperous for all. Give of your self either time or money (or hell, both) to those causes and organizations whose work you believe advance Dr. King’s noble mission. In the words of the Chicago Transit Authority, if you see something, say something.

As Dr. King said in his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech on April 3, 1968 – the day before that fateful day when his life was tragically taken –

“We don't have to argue with anybody. We don't have to curse and go around acting bad with our words. We don't need any bricks and bottles, we don't need any Molotov cocktails, we just need to go around… to these massive industries in our country, and say, "God sent us by here, to say to you that you're not treating his children right. And we've come by here to ask you to make the first item on your agenda fair treatment, where God's children are concerned.”

My fellow Oy!sters, now I ask you to join me in making fairness and equality toward all the first item on your agenda.


Mommyhood: Year One

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Mommyhood: Year One photo

Not even one and already too cool for Mommy

Lindsay Madison Flayhart Stoller came into the world exactly at 8:20 a.m. weighing exactly 7 pounds.  That is the last time anything in my life was exact.

These days, I’m always at least 20 minutes late, a fact that annoys my otherwise punctual husband to no end.  I used to thoroughly clean my home weekly, now I can only manage a couple of quick swipes with a Clorox wipe.  I can’t articulate an intelligent argument about our country’s healthcare system, however I could write a dissertation on diapers.  I have left the house wearing my shirt inside-out, I don’t remember the last time I had a pedicure or manicure, and my husband has lovingly begun to refer to me as Chewbacka.

Welcome to motherhood.

Mentally, I was prepared for a year of chaos, sleep-deprivation, lack of time, and new responsibilities.  What I wasn’t prepared for was just how happy all that chaos would make me feel, even on the days I need five cups of coffee to get through the morning, when the button on my pre-maternity pants pops off in a meeting, or when I drive to the train station biting back tears because I just left my baby in someone else’s arms.

Having a child has fundamentally changed who I am—not just my appearance or my lifestyle, but how I relate to the world.  I feel things much more deeply.  I get “it” -it being everything from a mushy commercial to why my mother becomes frantic if I don’t return her phone call within 24 hours.  My number one priority in life is unquestionably my child.  It’s like after my daughter was born I began to see the world in color, where previously I saw it only in black and white.  (I’m pretty sure I lifted that line somewhere, so don’t quote me.)

So, even with all the chaos, this has hands down been the best year of my life.  I just can’t believe it’s been nearly a year since I became a mom.  The time has gone by so fast—it seems like just yesterday she was kicking me from the inside, demanding more chocolate.  (Ok, that was all me.)

I am excited for the next year when Lindsay will say her first real words, take her first steps–yet I can’t help but miss my little baby.  The itty-bitty that slept on my chest to hear my heartbeat and who looked up at me as though I was the center of the universe.

If I could make one wish on Lindsay’s first birthday, it would be for a “do over” of the entire year, to slow time until I was ready for the next stage.  But, since I know that wish can’t come true, I will wish for Lindsay all of the things that can— and I hope will—come true.

I wish for you to always know how smart, funny, beautiful and special you are.

I wish for you to always feel how much your father and I love you.

I wish for you that I never do anything “uncool” that embarrasses you in front of your friends, but when I do that you will laugh with me.  And for God’s sake, please tell me if I’m wearing “mom jeans.”

I wish for you to be Daddy’s little girl, but never a spoiled princess.

I wish for you to always want my time and attention, my hugs and kisses.

I wish for you to always go through life happy and healthy.

I wish for you a better world.  I promise to do my best to prepare and protect you from it.

I wish that you will love your Jewish heritage, culture and religion, and that you will give back to the community when you are older.

I wish that you will understand why your father can’t be home a lot of evenings or weekends, because a Rabbi’s schedule isn’t 9-to-5.

I wish for you to have the strength, courage and confidence to dance to the beat of your own drummer.

I wish for you to never be a mean girl, or one of their targets.

I wish for you to never measure your self-worth by your appearance, male-attention, or by a number on the scale.

I wish for you to have your Daddy’s intelligence, sense of humor and his legs (they look great in a skirt), and Mommy’s street-smarts.

I wish that you won’t hate that your birthday is on Valentine’s Day—believe me, I tried convincing the doctor to wait a day.

I wish that even when you hate me, you still love me.  And will understand that you will always be my little Bunny, and no matter where you want to runaway to, I will find you and love you.

Happy First Birthday Lindsay.  I love you.


For my sister

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For my sister photo 1

Today my little sister turns 22. 22! She is halfway through her senior year of college. It sounds so cliché, but I can’t believe how fast she is growing up. It seems like just yesterday she was showing me her prom dress, and now here she is, just one semester away from graduating.

Mollie and I are like any sisters. We have more fun with each other than with anyone else, but we can also fight, make each other cry and annoy the shit out of each other. Each time I see Mollie (almost all Jewish holidays/Spring and Winter break), she and I have more and more fun with each other and fight less. I’m proud to report that we didn’t fight once over Christmas (and I was home for 4 whole days!!). Lately, I’ve been so proud of Mollie and all that she has accomplished. I love her so much, and I don’t tell her nearly enough. So for Mollie’s 22nd birthday, I have decided to dedicate this blog to her, and list 22 memories/quotes/things I love about my fabulous, almost 22 year-old sister.

22. I’ll start with a quote: “Sisters annoy, interfere, criticize. Indulge in monumental sulks, in huffs, in snide remarks. Borrow. Break. Monopolize the bathroom. Are always underfoot. But if catastrophe should strike, sisters are there. Defending you against all comers.” ~Pam Brown

21. This number reminds me of making drinks for the family at last year’s Hanukkah party, and finding out that they were 99% water because a certain sister couldn’t wait to turn 21, and had so cleverly re-filled the liquor bottles with water… smooth move, Moll.

20. My screen name was Abbster1. So you decided to be Molester1. How do you explain to a little girl that “Molester1” is not an appropriate name for AOL’s “kid chat.”

For my sister photo 2

19. Recent memory: our Spice Girls performance. (we’ll pretend this sing-a-long happened much longer ago than it actually did…)

18. You used to play “teacher” every single day. You made up names, lined up dolls, and created lesson plans. Now you really are a teacher. Congrats again on Teach for America. Your students are beyond lucky, and I’m prouder than proud.

17. I love our pow-wows that still occur before each shopping trip with Mom. “Ok, if we don’t fight at all, Mom will buy us soooo much more!”

16. I may have acted annoyed at the time, but I loved when you insisted on sleeping on my bedroom floor for a few months, instead of sleeping in your own room, 10 ft. away.

15. Molldoll4712. ‘nough said.

14. “You keep your past by having sisters. As you get older, they're the only ones who don't get bored if you talk about your memories.” ~Deborah Moggach

13. Our Wednesday night Top Chef “BBM sesh”. It’s almost as good as actually watching with you.

12. Rocking out with you at the No Doubt concert

11. I’m sorry for always making up different versions of the “you were adopted”/“bought at a store” story when we were little. Even if we did buy you at a store, I would never dream of returning you.

For my sister photo 3

10. We used to make the Best. Forts. EVER.

9. Grand Lake, Winter Park, Breckenridge, Steam Boat!

8. I’m glad you can always call me (or at least BBM) when you’re upset about something.

7. If playing Scrabble was a professional sport, you’d go pro.

6. Thanks for actually enjoying the torturous games I made you play. Such as the game where I tied you to the railing with bed sheets and timed you to see how long it would take you to untie yourself. Good times.

5. Your maturity and bravery has always amazed me. You’ve shown so much leadership and passion as a Rho Gamma for your sorority, and I’m awed by your strength and independence to decide to move to New Orleans, a city you’ve never even visited, to teach underprivileged youth for two years.

4. You may look like Barbie (or at least Skipper) now, but you definitely did not resemble Barbie as a booger-y two year old who would break my Barbie cars by trying to fit in them, one foot in each seat.

For my sister photo 4

3. I loved the years at camp and school when we would overlap. So fun.

2. Thanks for the “turtle” you left in my room. Thank god I didn’t pick it up.

1. I love the kid you were, the person you are today, and the person you’ll be later in life. I have the best memories with you, and I actually get excited thinking of how many more memories we’ll create as we continue to “grow up”.

Love you lots, Mootsie! Happy 22nd Birthday!! xoxo

To all the Oy! Readers who’ve actually made it all the way through my list—wow. Mazel Tov. Hopefully you’ll be inspired to take the time to share special memories with someone important in your life!


How to “CH”

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Some will say to clear your throat. Some will say to imagine coughing up a fish bone. But what, really, is the easiest and most accurate way to say the sound that starts chai, challah, and chutzpah?

The sound made by the Hebrew letters chaf and chet also can be heard in Arabic, German, Dutch, Scottish and other languages. So it’s also useful in imagining Gaddafi, Bach and van Gogh touring Loch Ness.

But for most of us, it comes up when pronouncing Hebrew or Yiddish words: congratulating the chatan under the chupah at his chatunah, greeting the Chasid at a Chabad house, or discussing the works of Chaim Potok, Itzhak Perlman, and Shmuley Boteach.

You might really use the ch sound during the Jewish holidays, wishing someone Chag same’ach on Chanukah… celebrating Rosh Chodesh… and especially searching for chametz or making charoset on Pesach.

My favorite dictionary (writers are allowed to have such things) is Webster’s Riverside III. Its pronunciation guide spells this sound kh.

Why that combination of letters? Well, it explains, that to say the sound, you should hold your mouth as if to say the k sound, and instead say an h. It even offers this tip— say the k sound four times, quickly… and then, without changing the orientation of your tongue, say the h sound.

In explaining how to say the ch sound to others, I have realized that the reason the sound is so difficult for so many is that it involves a part of our mouths that is never used when speaking English: the uvula. This is the small tab of skin hanging down over the back of one’s tongue.

We do use the uvula, however, in making another, non-speaking sound— snoring. The uvula, vibrating like a boxer’s punching bag against the back of your throat, produces this distinctive, raspy sound. A snore is made while inhaling, drawing air into the throat.

All the Hebrew/Yiddish ch sound is, then, is a backward snore. The ch is a vibration of the uvula while exhaling, pushing air up out of the throat. So try making snoring sound… and then, not changing the orientation of your tongue or lips, breathe out… snoring backward.

One final note: making this sound, you should not sound like you are clearing your throat from a bad cold (unless you are speaking in the Yemenite dialect). The sound is not made that low in the throat; it comes from a higher spot by the back of the tongue.

With a little practice, you’ll sound as comfortably convincing with the ch sound as Talmudic as a chochom, as authentic as an Israeli chalutz, and as melodic as a chazan.

Until next month: as an American president once said to a fallen Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin: “Shalom, chaver.”

For more ch words to learn and practice, visit  this page of JUF’s Jewish Word Glossary. B’hatzlacha… good luck!


More face time in 2010

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Just as we do around the High Holidays, I think New Year’s and the subsequent weeks after provide a good time for introspection and goal setting. In fact, I think society might be a whole lot healthier if people took quarterly inventories of their lives.

My recent conclusions come both from discussions with friends and also from having seen “Up in the Air.”

I started 2010 with your typical resolutions—eating healthier, being more active and spending more time with family and friends.

To date, two-thirds of these resolutions have not come into fruition, although I remain innocently optimistic.

It was difficult to start a healthy eating regime when my refrigerator was, and is still, jam-packed with goodies I baked over the holidays, including peppermint bark, cakes and the like.

More face time in 2010 photo

My resolution downfall

Also, not to sound like a 90-year old woman, but hauling my car out of a snow-filled parking spot in sub-zero temperatures is exercise enough for me on some days.

However, something I’ve taken to heart is the idea of spending more time with family and friends—which can be difficult with a crazy work schedule.

The holidays offered some time off that reminded me of what I was missing. I reconnected with out of town friends and had a daylong baking extravaganza with my mother on Christmas—what else are Jews supposed to do on Christmas?

The minute I welcomed these things more fully back into my life after having come off a work rush before the holidays, I realized what I had been missing. Immediately, I felt more balanced and as a result, I’m more cheerful now as I go through my daily grind.

I also spent last Sunday talking with a friend about how we needed to jumpstart our lives instead of moping about them—yes, we were talking about boys. However, the conversation evolved into talk of enriching ourselves with activities around the city.

However, somewhere in the back of mind, I’ve been realizing that I may have George Clooney to thank for some positive steps forward in 2010.

While Clooney’s not Jewish (to my knowledge), I think if he knocked on my door, I’d let that one slide. He certainly was more stunning than ever in “Up in the Air,” as was his acting.

I don’t want to provide too many spoilers in case there are readers out there who still want to go see it. But, the movie, while funny at times, was also quite tragic.

Clooney’s character, Ryan Bingham, who essentially traveled around the country and fired people for a living, thought he had life figured out, right down to each robotic moment—whether he was passing through airports or checking into hotels. However, he realized one big thing was missing from his life: human connection.

I think this movie was a cautionary tale for modern society. If we allow our jobs, our television sets, our computers, our cell phones, our iPods or our Facebook pages to consume our lives, we’ll forget about the real-life people around us.

My friends and I, for instance, are guilty of texting at the dinner table.

I also worry that our consumerist-driven society is only magnified during a time when people are panicked about unemployment and mere survival. Bingham’s task of firing people was downright heartbreaking for the viewer, though Clooney offered a cool performance. At the same time, his character faced the inevitability that his own in-person work was going to be transplanted by computerized interactions.

Are we better as a society for making things more efficient and less personal?

That’s something I’m grappling with in 2010.


Miep Gies is a real hero

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Forget Mark McGwire. Miep Gies is a real hero. photo

We are living in a time where kids are taught to worship celebrities and athletes, some of whom are eventually exposed as being morally bankrupt. Their excuses for their imperfections are: “I’m only human” or “Just because I’m amazing at _______ doesn’t make me a role model.”

Actually, what doesn’t make them a role model is their behavior, not humanity’s expectations of them.

Sure enough, I woke up on Tuesday, turned on the Today Show, and heard Mark McGwire’s pitiful confession of steroid use. As my eyes were still rolling, the news mentioned that Miep Gies had passed away at the age of 100.

Miep Gies is a real hero. I happened to read “The Diary of Anne Frank” the same year Gies’ autobiography “Anne Frank Remembered” came out. While Anne Frank’s diary was of course moving, Gies’ book shaped my view of the world and our potential as individuals to work toward tikkun olam and act ethically even when it doesn’t benefit us and even when it’s not easy.

Gies moved to Holland as a child from Austria, and because her family was impoverished, she was then adopted. In 1933, she began working for Otto Frank, Anne Frank’s father and eventually helped to hide the family and their friends from 1942-1944. After the Nazis arrested the Franks, Gies saved Anne’s diary and gave it to her father after he was liberated from Auschwitz.

Gies hid the Franks at great risk to herself and her husband. Her thoughtful nature led her to save Anne’s diary in hopes that she’d be able to return it to Anne one day. Although as we know, Anne never received her diary, it became the voice of the about 1.5 million children who died during the Holocaust and is thought to be the second most read non-fiction book in the world.

After Gies became famous because of the Diary, she used that celebrity to discuss the evils of anti-Semitism and to keep Anne’s legacy alive.

Maybe every athlete and celebrity should be given “Anne Frank Remembered” to read. Perhaps it would give them the courage to abstain from cheating, drug abuse and philandering, despite the tremendous pressure that they are under.

Definitely give a copy to any young person you know. It is a good read and they will admire her courage and maybe even emulate it.


DIY-Date Night

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DIY-Date Night photo

Imagine soft candle light, beautiful music, crisp-refreshing martinis, crackling skinned chicken with the fragrance of rosemary and lemon perfuming the air and deep dark chocolate mousse. Your favorite restaurant? No. This is your home kitchen with you at the helm. Usually date night means eating at a restaurant and sometimes having a great meal and sometimes not. I propose that the next date night, whether you are cooking for one, two or a bunch, you treat yourself and those you love to an intimate home-cooked meal.

A home-cooked meal has oodles of advantages.

1. You set the atmosphere. Light your candles, play your iPod and wear your favorite dress up clothes or your PJs.

2. Homemade date night is usually more economical. You have the advantage when you are making food at home of picking and choosing which ingredients to splurge on and which to be a bit thriftier. You also get to eat the leftovers!

3. When you make a fabulous dinner, even if it is for just one, you are giving your heart and soul to the diner(s). Nothing says “love” like a great meal with a little TLC thrown in.

4. Making dinner at home is intimate. You can have your date help you in the kitchen or go for the big “ta-dah” and present your diner with beautiful food.

I could go on and on, but you get the idea. Next time you feel like making reservations, consider a homemade date night. My simple recipes will help you make a luscious and restaurant quality meal that will have your diners begging for another at DIY Date Night.

Mixed Olive Tapenade

Serve the tapenade with crostini. Cut a baguette into ½ inch thick slices, rub them with olive oil and toast them in a 350 degree oven until they are lightly browned and crispy. Rub the crostini with a peeled garlic clove while they are still warm and then dollop the tapenade on the toasts.

½ cup kalamata olives-pitted
½ cup cracked green olives-pitted
Juice and zest of 1 lemon
2 cloves of garlic-peeled
Pinch of crushed red chili flakes
2 anchovy filets
Extra virgin olive oil
¼ cup fresh flat leaf parsley-chopped

1. Place the olives, lemon juice, zest, garlic, chili flakes (if using) and anchovy filets in a food processor. Pulse the mixture until it resembles a chunky paste. Add additional olive oil if necessary.

2.  Remove mixture and place in a small bowl. Stir parsley. Adjust seasoning. Tapenade can be stored in the refrigerator covered for up to three weeks.

Herb Roasted Chicken

Roasted chicken with a crackling skin and luscious meat is the little black dress (or male equivalent) of the food world. It goes with everything. You can dress it up or down depending upon how you serve and garnish it. Do not even think of substituting boneless-skinless chicken breasts for a whole chicken. Boneless-skinless breasts are fine for some recipes, but a whole chicken just tastes more savory and succulent. Serve this fragrant chicken with a big salad and you will be a star.

Serves 2-3

1 whole chicken about 3 ½ pounds
½ cup chopped fresh flat leaf parsley
3 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary plus 1 sprig
Juice and zest of 1 lemon plus 1 whole lemon
Juice and zest of 1 orange
2 tablespoons cracked black pepper corns
1 bulb of garlic cut in half horizontally
¼ cup Extra Virgin olive oil
Kosher Salt

Pan Jus
½ cup white wine
1/3 cup chicken stock

1. Preheat the oven to 450. Rinse the chicken thoroughly. Pat dry and place on a roasting rack.  Place all the fresh herbs (except for the whole rosemary sprig), zest and juices and black pepper in a small bowl and whisk together.

2. Use your hands to thoroughly rub the chicken inside the cavity and out with the herb mixture. Stuff the lemon, whole rosemary sprig, garlic and ½ onion into the cavity of the chicken. Tuck the wings under the body of the chicken and tie the legs together (this will help keep the shape a little nicer).

3.  Roast the chicken for 20 minutes at high heat. Turn down the oven temperature to 250 and slow roast (occasionally brushing on more of the herb mixture) until a thermometer inserted into the thigh registers 160 (about 1 hour). Remove from the oven and loosely cover with foil. Allow the chicken to rest before carving.

4. To carve the chicken: (You CAN do this part!)Cut the string off of the chicken and remove the vegetables and lemon. Reserve the garlic and discard the rest. Cut down the center along the breast bone on both sides. Remove the breast bone. Pull the chicken apart slightly to expose the back bone. Cut along both sides of the back bone and remove it. Cut the birds into quarters and place a serving platter. Reserve the pan juices.

5. Skim off the fat from the pan juices. Add the pan juices back to the roasting pan and place the pan over medium heat. Squeeze the garlic cloves into the pan. Mash the garlic with the back of a spoon to puree it. Add wine and chicken stock and reduce the mixture until the jus has slightly thickened.

Chocolate Mousse

No fake whipping cream needed when you use great chocolate (no cheap stuff or the recipe will not work) and a plump vanilla bean loaded with flavor. This mousse is all about chocolate. Serve with fresh fruit, cocoa nibs and chopped nuts.

4 ½ ounces bittersweet chocolate (70% cocoa mass), chopped
3 tablespoons strong, brewed, coffee
1 tablespoon cognac (or water)
4 whole eggs at room temperature
3 tablespoons water
3 tablespoons sugar
Pinch of kosher salt
1 vanilla bean scraped

1. Place the chocolate, coffee and cognac if using in a small bowl and place over a pan of simmering water. Melt the chocolate. Transfer to a large bowl and set a side to cool.

2. Place the eggs, water, sugar, salt and vanilla bean in the bowl of a high-speed mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Whisk on high until the mixture resembles whipped cream. This will take 7-10 minutes-be patient!

3. Fold the whipped eggs into the cooled chocolate in several additions.

4. Portion the mousse in dessert glasses or ramekins. Place in the refrigerator to set at least 2 hours before eating. The mousse may be made one day ahead, wrapped with plastic wrap and stored in the refrigerator.


Avatar is so totally Jewish!

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Avatar is so totally Jewish photo

Just saw Avatar at Navy Pier’s Imax theater…LOVED IT!!  Wow!!  As I watched, I kept thinking about how this movie is totally Jewish.  In fact, I think that the movie is so darn Jewish that Mr. Cameron should send a big fat royalty check (to the tune of 1.34 Billion) to JUF.  That would be so great!  (In the meantime, don’t forget to make your JUF donation this year!)

Anyway, here are some of the Jewish connections I noticed.  Love to hear what you think:

1.  The movie is long—really long—like 3 hours long—but good—just like a Shabbat service.

2.  Hmmmm… a story about a little band of warriors with a lot of heart, but far less sophisticated weapons, who challenge a much better organized and equipped army in order protect their land?  Sounds familiar...Oh, I know!  It’s Chanukah!!

3.  Neytiri, Jake’s Na’vi Beshert, is the embodiment of every gorgeous Israeli woman I ever dreamed of dating.  She’s got swagger and confidence, she’s fierce, fearless, passionate, and at the same time she’s extremely loving and loyal once you win her respect.  Sure, she might make you learn Hebrew and move to Israel, and she will likely dare you to jump off a huge tree, but know this—if you ever get attacked by a pack of wolves, (or ten angry terrorists) she’ll take em’ all down.

4.  Na’vi, the name of the indigenous people of Pandora means “prophet” in Hebrew.  The name of their god—Eywa if you rearrange the letters, spells Yawe…which is just like YAHWEH (the name of our God) and if you add just one letter to Tsahik, the name of the spiritual leaders of Na'vi clans, you get tzadik, the Hebrew word for a righteous person (as noted in other blogs).

5. The unlikely hero of the story, Jake Sully, had a physical impairment.  He cannot walk. With the use of another body (the Avatar) Jake is able transform the world.  Moses, one the greatest Jewish heroes of all time, also had a physical impairment.  He was “slow of speech and slow of tongue” (Ex. 3:10) and like Jake, Moses, with the use of another body, (that of his brother Aaron, who had no trouble speaking), and with the help of God, (actually it was the other way around) overcomes the mighty Pharaoh.

6.  The notion from the movie that “All living things are one—zalelu”—is Jewish.  Note this story about the late Rabbi Isaac Kook, first chief Rabbi of Israel:  One day Rav Kook was walking in the fields with a student when the young man carelessly plucked a leaf off a branch.  Visibly shaken by this act, Rav Kook turned to his companion and said gently, “Believe me when I tell you I never simply pluck a leaf or a blade of grass or any living thing unless I have to.  Every part of the vegetable world is singing a song breathing forth a secret of the diving mystery of creation.”  For the first time the young student understood the meaning of showing compassion to all living things.  (Spirit in Nature: Teaching Judaism and Ecology on the Trail, Biers-Ariel, Newborn and Smart, pg 22)

7.  The big Tree—“Home Tree” is clearly like the Tree of Knowledge from the first story of Genesis and the Na’vi are living in the Garden of Eden.  Problem is the evil General doesn’t heed Deuteronomy 20:19 which states, “when you wage war against a city…you must not destroy its trees.”  When the tree is destroyed, the people are exiled, reminding us all of the destruction of the Temple in 70CE.  The “Tree of Souls,” the center of the Na’vi’s religious and cultural life and a place where the Na’vi can connect to all the ancestors of the past, is an obvious metaphor for the Torah, which is a “Tree of Life to all who hold fast to it.”  Like the “Tree of Souls”, the Torah is our connection to God, to our people past and present and our center of religious life.  That is why when our enemies have persecuted us in the past, the first symbolic target in their crosshairs is the Torah.

8.  Some say Pandora's floating "Hallelujah Mountains" were inspired by the Chinese Huang Shan mountains, I say the inspiration came from the following Midrash:

At the foot of Mt. Sinai, God's words boomed down upon the Israelites. The people stood, flabbergasted and stupefied with fear.  Slowly, apprehensively, they moved closer.  As they drew nearer, God lifted Mt. Sinai and held it over their heads:  IF YOU ACCEPT MY TORAH, FINE!  God said.  IF NOT, YOUR GRAVES WILL BE UNDER THIS MOUNTAIN!  The people shouted, WE ACCEPT!

9.  When Jake becomes a Na’vi, we can’t help but be reminded of the process of becoming a Jew.  As a rite of passage to become an adult Na’vi, Jake must tame and fly an Ikran, a terrifying wild birdlike creature.  To become Jewish adults, we have to tame our nerves and fly by the seat of our pants during our Bar or Bat Mitzvah.  After much practice, we find that we soar.  Also, when Jake is completely immersed in Na’vi culture, to his surprise, he falls in love with their people, religion, culture and God.  As is noted elsewhere, Jake’s trip to forests of Pandora does for him what an Israel trip does for many American Jews.  Jake’s encounter then leads him to what I saw as the last scene in the movie—a beautiful conversion ceremony, not unlike what we have in Judaism.  Jake, with the support of the entire community, the Kehilla, who are singing and swaying with total Kavanah, hears sacred words chanted, and awakens with his eyes open, now ready to see the world through new and excited eyes—much like the experience of someone who converts to Judaism and suddenly sees the world through Jewish eyes.
10.  Finally, when the movie trailer opens Jake’s states that he wants to make a difference and hopes to find something worth fighting for.  In other words, Jake is searching for his Holy Mission, his opportunity to impact the world for the better.  This is ultimately a religious search and the point of Judaism—for each of us to find what God has put us on this planet to do and to serve that Holy Mission in a way that brings honor to ourselves, our families, our people and all of humanity.  In a way, we Jews are just like the Jake character in the movie, searching for our best selves, always striving to learn what really matters in life and always making a positive difference in the lives of others. I think therefore, that it is more than mere coincidence the main character’s name is Jake.  To us, he is Jacob, which is of course another name for ISRAEL—which really means that he is all of us.


Cheers! Chicago: Pass the Grape Juice, Please

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Cheers! Chicago: Pass the Grape Juice, Please photo

“Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who creates the fruit of the vine.”

As a kid, I remember sitting in the main dining hall for Shabbat lunch, a long-standing tradition at my elementary/middle school. Every Friday, the elementary school students sat in the long, close-quartered cafeteria tables, while the middle school students were privileged enough to sit at the large roundtables with white linens and bread baskets filled with warm, round challahs. It was the biggest thrill for me as a fifth grader to walk into my first Friday lunch and get to sit at the big tables! Each week, a different table acted as the “head table” and each person at that table helped to lead a different prayer in the service—light the candles, break the bread, and of course, toast the wine.

Or, in our case, we toasted the grape juice.

As I look back at that time, I’m reminded that our religion is filled with tradition and celebration, including our weekly homage to Shabbat, when we are commanded by God to welcome each week’s end by consuming an alcoholic beverage. Is this right? Is this good? As kids, even though we were drinking grape juice, we were pretending to drink wine, were we not? Back then, I liked grape juice, so much that whenever someone was sick in class, I always asked for their allocated juice cup. But once I got older and learned about the tradition of drinking wine not only on Shabbat but also on other Jewish holidays, I wondered why the Jewish community felt it was necessary to drink on these occasions, and even questioned whether this had any kind of effect on us on a genetic level.

After doing a bit of research, I found some interesting answers to my questions. The Center for the Advancement of Health says that a particular gene found in the Jewish people is also one that, “produces a more active form of alcohol dehydrogenase, the enzyme that catalyzes the first step in alcohol metabolism.” In other words, in a culture that seems to encourage drinking, there appears to be a gene that naturally helps us metabolize alcohol more quickly. Ten years ago, the Jewish Museum in New York City had an exhibit sponsored by Seagram & Sons called “Drink and Be Merry: Wine and Beer in Ancient Times” that examined the alcohol production and drinking customs in the eastern Mediterranean and Near East over the past 5000 years. No surprise: it included “sections of the Dead Sea Scrolls dealing with the ancient Jewish festival for new wine”.

Whether or not genetics have anything to do with it, as a real life bartender, watching people consume alcohol for a living, I know it’s the choices we make that count. For us as Jews, it’s both a religious commandment and a cultural privilege. We are able to acknowledge and revere the fruits of our Creator without denying ourselves any enjoyment. For many Jews, raising a glass of wine every Friday at sundown was, and still is, one of our most important traditions; for others, it is evokes a  lifelong heartwarming memory of childhood, and of everything that made it all possible.

And by the way, even though I pour and taste lots of wine for a living – and I mean LOTS – I still prefer grape juice.



Fabulous in 2010

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It’s that time of year again— have you made your New Year’s resolutions yet?

You knew the fitness expert wasn’t going to let go of an opportunity to encourage you to make some healthy resolutions for 2010. The trick to a lasting resolution is attainability. If you set some crazy goal, lose 30 pounds by March, it probably won’t happen. A better goal would be, exercise at least three times a week, or look better in my bathing suit by eating more veggies and exercising thirty minutes a day.

Let’s tackle some 2010 goals right now! What would make this year awesome? Really, take the pen that’s somewhere on your desk, and right down whatever comes to mind.

• More money
• Less weight
• Boy/girl friend
• Baby
• To be engaged
• An exciting job
• More energy
• European trip…

About a million years ago, back in 1999, I wrote down that I wanted to go take a trip to Australia. I gave myself a year to get there. At the time, I was an underpaid consultant, making half of what my friends where making, traveling to the saddest cities in the US— sorry if you are from Muskogee— and living out of a suitcase. Well, fast forward six months. I WAS IN AUSTRALIA! After I wrote down my dream, I checked how many frequent flier miles I needed to rack up to get there, the day I hit 65,000 I called United and booked my trip. I still had the crappy job, but I was on a topless beach and definitely not complaining at all. So, writing down a crazy dream and giving it a date, works!

Bigger goals, like saving for a house, or going back to school take a little more planning and sometimes, you need to ask for help. Who is going to help you reach your awesome goals? Next to your item or items to achieve in 2010, write down a helper. This can be a friend, coworker, trainer (me), spouse, boss, financial planner, anyone who can help you reach your goal. Number one on my list is my wife. She is an amazing support system.  No matter how crazy my idea is, she’ll support and nag me until I get it done.

Now you don’t have to create an entire project plan in one day, but start thinking about what you need to do to be successful. About seven years ago, I dug myself into a little credit card debt. Okay, actually, it was a lot of credit card debt. I was constantly freaking out, my career as a personal trainer and party promoter wasn’t working as well as I’d hoped. Finally, I decided enough was enough! I got on Excel and put down all the money I owed, consolidated my debt, set up a budget…and 8 months later no credit card debt! And let me tell you, that felt incredible.

If fitness is your goal, good luck. Look at the gym in January and then look again in February. Since most people give up on their goals, follow the steps above. Write down your weight goal, find a work out buddy, figure out when you’re going to the gym, and set up meals that include a protein, carb and fat.


For more tips on how to keep those New Year’s goals, check out Rachel’s article.

Have specific fitness questions? As always, feel free to send me a note or comment below.


Learning to channel passion

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Learning to channel passion photo 1

I’m a mentor in the Write On For Israel program, which means that one Sunday a month I hear things like “I’m a lifelong Zionist” from juniors in high school. I want to respond with, “You’re 16!!!”

But then I remember how I was at 16 – that’s just 10 years ago in case you’re wondering – and all of my amusement at what my grandmother calls “youthful maximalism” dissipates. At 16, I thought I knew all the answers. And I thought I could give a lesson or two to my teachers. Here’s the catch: the student Fellows in the Write On program really could teach us a lesson or two and they really do know the answers in many cases.

The program is centered on teaching how to argue in support of Israel, while giving these future journalists, lobbyists and politicians the tools they need to be successful in their efforts. My role involves evaluating – not grading – their homework and leading discussions about their assignments and the lectures. I also might get to teach a session closers to the end of the seminar series in June.

When I first found out about the opportunity, I jumped at the chance. I had heard of the program in college and regretted that my hometown community – Cincinnati – did not have anything like it. I would have loved to develop my writing skills and simultaneously learn about Israel’s history, politics and current events. Although I kept up with Israel news, opportunities to learn about Israel from a variety of perspectives were limited. Besides Chicago, Write On programs thrive in three other communities: New York (where the program began), Cleveland and San Francisco.

In the Chicago program, we have participants who have grown up not only with complete access to information, but also opportunities to discuss issues surrounding Israel both at home and at school. We also have participants who have very vague ideas about what Israel’s history looks like but who believe that Israel is essential to the survival of the Jewish people. They are not afraid to speak up, to argue, to think about the issues surrounding this tiny speck of a land that has been the guiding light for generations of Jews.

Learning to channel passion photo 2

All of the Write On Fellows are extremely bright and all have interests outside school and Israel. Some are on their school’s basketball team; others are very active in their synagogue’s youth group. Some go to Jewish high schools, while others are at suburban public schools. What draws them together is passion.

A testament to that passion is the Fellows’ extra commitment to spend six hours one Sunday per month learning alongside the instructors and mentors – and probably another five hours on homework a month for the next six months.

In the few meetings we’ve had so far and from reading their homework, it’s clear that Israel, writing, debate and, most importantly, learning in general are at the core of the Fellows’ being. They are excited about the program: In most cases they chose it rather than being pressured to apply by their parents. They aren’t here to pad their resumes (although the program’s prestige certainly looks great on a college application). And they signed up knowing it isn’t just a one-year commitment: Write On is a two-year program. Senior Fellows complete independent projects rather than spending time in a classroom.

Of course, sheer passion can’t win an argument. In fact, letting passion go to your head can quickly thwart even the best-planned line of reasoning. It’s our job as mentors and instructors to teach them the best ways to express their passion and devotion to Israel. We talk about sources and finding credible information; we read the foremost experts in the field; and we hear from dedicated professionals who put into perspective Israel’s past, present and future. The hope is that these future leaders might use the tools Write On gives them throughout their lives.


At least you have your health

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At least you have your health photo

One of my unearthed writing samples

The week that ended in Christmas was going to be productive, if not entirely jolly. My parents no longer live year round in the house I grew up in, which is an old American four-square in Athens, Ohio. They had been bugging me for the better part of a year to clean out all the boxes piled high with my childhood, so I could haul what I liked to their new place in Columbus, with its many unused walk-in closets. Weekend visits are never enough time to get anything done, much less dive into twenty-some years of artifacts and memories, so I was really pleased with myself when I was able to take a week off and go be responsible for once.

I flew in Sunday morning, got a ride to Athens Monday morning and got in exactly one day of work at the house, in which time I managed to discover every piece of paper I’d ever written on between 1994 and 2002. That night I met up with a friend, and we went out to a beloved Chinese restaurant. We shared two dishes, and I took the leftovers home. The next day, my sesame chicken announced it had gone to the dark side. Let’s just say the whole thing was highly undignified.

Actually, it was pretty scary. We had almost nothing in our house, not even saltines. I was too weak to go anywhere, the whole town was on Christmas vacation and my parents were 80 miles away. A glimpse of myself in a mirror showed a refugee from a bad horror flick (my credit would be “Animated Corpse #3”). I’m not used to feeling that vulnerable: living in Chicago has always made me want to prove I can do everything myself. The only option seemed to be waiting it out. Like a genius, I tried to pass the time with episodes of House, MD. Nothing like a medical dramedy to keep you from getting paranoid.

I wasn’t alone, though. That’s the thing. I got over my aversion to bothering people at home and called a family friend, who showed up on my porch half an hour later with Gatorade, soup, bread for toast, jam, saltines and Sleepytime tea. He ordered me to call him regularly with status updates, even at odd hours. He both stayed in regular contact with my parents and ran interference, so they wouldn’t call me when I was trying to sleep. He continued to check in days later, just to make sure I was feeling better, and was ready to drive me the two hours back to my parents’ place himself. I wanted electrolytes: I got an on-call super-nurse.

People talk about how movies or books or true stories reaffirm their faith in humanity, even after a year as sometimes dispiriting as this one has been. For me, it was a rogue box of leftovers. Expect the unexpected, I guess.

My mom says the same thing every time she gives a gift: “Use it in good health.” I could say the same thing about 2010. Keep your Gatorade handy, and have a happy, healthy new year.


Mazel Tov, 2009!!!

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“Mazel Tov”. It’s a catchy phrase, isn’t it? We Jews like to use it whenever we can: at Bar Mitzvahs, weddings, when your uncle buys a new car (and pays below the dealer cost!) when you realize after sitting through all nine hours of “Wicked” that the tickets were free, and during other equally joyous celebrations.

And yet I can’t think of a better use of “Mazel Tov” than to thank God that 2009 is over. In fact, let’s try it. 2009 has come to an end; Mazel Tov. No, make that Mazel Tov! How about this: MAZEL TOV!!! (Feel free to add smiley faces or an LOL at the end of your use of the phrase if it feels right.)

Seemingly everyone and every media outlet is dwelling on the close of the first decade of the 2000’s, which began with non-stop stories about Y2K and ended with non-stop stories about the TSA. (By the way, any potential shoe-bombers reading this article can expect an old fashioned butt whoppin’ from the Shan-Dawg if you pull that on one of my many flights. I’m serious. This is 5 feet and 5 and a half inches of absolute fury waiting to be unloaded.) But I’ll save my Mazel Tov for a more specific cause: the close of one of the more ridiculous and abjectly stupid years that I can remember. In a year of many mishaps and embarrassments, let’s consider three big ones that will always stand out in my mind, and makes the coming of 2010 worthy of many other Hebrew words I don’t even know.

In no particular order:

2009 CHICAGO SPORTS – This is a topic for which the term “Oy” was originally coined. Everywhere you look – and no, I’m not including the Chicago Blackhawks, a team that from 1995-2008 had the same number of fans as does NBC’s “Chuck” – Chicago teams were brutal this year. The White Sox limped along all year, only redeemed by a rare perfect game by pitcher Mark Buherle. By mid season, their GM traded away arguably their best player, someone who’s also one of the best hitters of the last 15 years in all of baseball, then claimed, “hey, we’re still in this thing”. No, Kenny Williams. You were not.

The Bulls? A team that once won six titles in a decade turned a playoff LOSS to the Celtics into a marketing campaign. Then they refused to re-sign one of the best shooters in basketball despite his desire to stay here, and as of this writing, are holding on to a coach who’d previously never coached a basketball game on any level during his life. (Why they didn’t just call me to do the job is both curious and highly insulting.) When a franchise that gave the world Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen is now happy just to lose a tough playoff series, you know the glory days are long gone.

Which brings me to my beloved Chicago Cubs. Everyone knows the Cubs are a century-plus long disaster. That’s not exactly breaking news. Indeed, for roughly 29 of the 35 years of my life, the Cubs have been an absolute laughingstock. But this year, they achieved a whole new level of bad, by signing a player (Milton Bradley) whom everyone in baseball knew was crazy. The Cubs then proceeded to appear shocked when he started acting crazy. Imagine Dennis Rodman without the talent, sense of humor, or likability. That’s Milton Bradley, folks. But it wasn’t all Milton’s fault. Alfonso Soriano, who made about $140,000 per RBI, accidentally forgot how to play baseball. Giovanny Soto apparently discovered Lou Malnatis. And Ryan Dempster started to resemble, well, Ryan Dempster. You want to talk about a jinx? Is it a coincidence that one of the most disappointing Cubs seasons in a half century occurred after they jettisoned their one Jewish pitcher, Jason Marquis? I think not. Marquis went on to become an all-star (which, no doubt, made his mother very, very proud) while the Cubs were out of the pennant race by mid-summer. Perhaps new Cubs owner Tom Ricketts needs a reminder that about half of the Cubs’ fan base arrives at Wrigley via the Purple Line and a trek from the north shore. Might not be such a bad idea to hang onto some tribesmen in the future.

THAT GAP CHEERLEADING COMMERCIAL – I like the Gap and have shopped there long enough to remember their old-school, western-tinged ad campaign with a low-voiced dude singing, ala that guy from the Oak Ridge Boys (don’t pretend like you don’t know who I’m referring to), “Fall Into The Gap”. But their recent cheerily cryptic ad with the little girls who resemble the cast of “Annie” on speed screaming to me that I should “talk to the moose” has gone too far. It’s been burned into my consciousness, to the point where occasionally I have visions of that one girl who clenches her arms and emits what appears to be a blood-curdling scream while her friends sing that they love their comfy sweater. (Granted, those visions could have something to do some bad decisions made at a Dead show, but I digress…) My point is this: I don’t care how cute your boots are. Please stop yelling at me and do not come back in 2010. Hey mom and dad, guess what? Your kids need Valium.

THE TEA-BAGGERS – I came out of the womb a liberal, a fact that many of you who’ve read my columns must be aware of based on the inordinate amount of Sarah Palin references I try to squeeze into each OY! article. (The Beatles re-released their catalog? What a perfect excuse to bash Ms. Palin!) But this goes beyond mere politics. Let’s face it, regardless of one’s political affiliation, both sides have a whole lot to dislike. But a certain group of Americans, who proudly refer to themselves as “Tea-Baggers” (I’ll let the term and its myriad ironies speak for itself), took political insanity to a whole new level this year, and made Keith Olbermann and Rush Limbaugh look like two of the more measured people in the world. (Self-involved note: be sure to catch “Rush: The Musical” at Second City e.t.c. starting this February. You’ll love it. Or be very offended. I kind of hope for both.)

The debate which so passionately (and loudly) moved the Tea-Bagger types became not about any salient issues, but rather such fantastical concepts as whether or not our President would oversee death panels, kill your Grandma, and choose which Americans would get healthcare. The words “Hitler”, “Nazi”, and “Socialism” were overused more than once – usually without any regard for their actual historical connotation or power – and all the while the President was disregarded anyway because he allegedly wasn’t even an American. It’s tough to argue with ill-informed conspiracy theorists, and any reasonable attempts were thwarted with foaming-at-the-mouth yelling and screaming at town hall meetings. At one point, Arlen Spector was nearly shouted to death by a man on Medicare who passionately didn’t believe anyone else deserved to be on Medicare.

By the end of the year, things had calmed down considerably, but the summer of 2009 – and its corresponding healthcare “debates” will likely be remembered as one of the darker and more stupid eras in modern American history. It did confirm the theory that if you give a crazy person a microphone, he’s probably gonna say a whole lot of crazy s**t. (One particular supporter of the tea-bagger cause, who makes a whole lot of money as host on a major news network, spent a good amount of his time either crying or calling the President racist. Sometimes in the same breath. That this man has an inordinate amount of followers makes even proud Americans like me want to head for the tropical paradise of Canada in a hurry.)

Of course, a whole lot else happened this year. American Idol crowned their 27h meaningless winner, Michael Jackson ascended to that Neverland in the sky, and, horror of all horrors, Tiger Woods enjoys more than just golf. (Why this was a bigger story than the torrid affair of a “family values” Southern governor is worthy of an entirely different column. E-mail me directly if you’d like my warped take on this.)

On a personal level, the year wasn’t a total wash; I was fortunate enough to experience a few pretty great moments in 2009. “Rod Blagojevich Superstar” became my first hit, my family and friends were happy and healthy, and I was given the honor of writing for Oy! That said, here’s a pint-sized “Mazel Tov” for the good moments of 2009, but a gigantic, all-caps “MAZEL TOV” that the year is over. Onto better and bigger things in 2010, and may each one of you reading this experience nothing but peace, love, and prosperity going forward. Is that worthy of an emphatic Mazel Tov, or what?

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